Voicebox: Research on the physics and evolution of speech facilitating science teaching in secondary schools
Submitting InstitutionUniversity College London
Unit of AssessmentGeography, Environmental Studies and Archaeology
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Medical and Health Sciences: Neurosciences
Psychology and Cognitive Sciences: Psychology, Cognitive Sciences
Summary of the impact
As part of an EU-funded project on human evolution, a multi-disciplinary
team led by a UCL archaeologist reconstructed the vocal tracts and
potential speech sounds of Neanderthals (our most closely related extinct
relatives). This experience was used to develop Voicebox: The Physics
and Evolution of Speech, a pre-GCSE science teaching resource, with
a booklet, DVD and physical apparatus. The booklet and DVD were
distributed to about 6,500 UK science teachers. A follow-up evaluation in
London schools confirmed that the Voicebox is seen as a valuable
extension activity that has the potential to interest and engage pupils,
including those with a low general level of interest in science subjects.
As part of a wider study of the evolution of the human brain, language,
and tool use [c], a multidisciplinary team led by Dr James Steele (UCL
Institute of Archaeology since 2006) reconstructed the Neanderthal vocal
tract and its potential to articulate speech sounds. The anatomical
reconstruction used 3D scans of Neanderthal skulls, and 3D scans of the
soft tissue of human and chimpanzee vocal tracts (from which a predictive
model of the position of the tongue root in the Neanderthal vocal tract
was obtained by 3D morphometric analysis). The software modelling of the
vocal tract's speech potential was done using purpose-built software
(Simus_Neanderthal) based on a pre-existing software articulatory model of
the human vocal tract and its acoustic properties. Our objective was to
contribute to the development of methods that can be used to make further
incremental advances in understanding the evolution of speech based on
fossil and archaeological evidence.
We focused on Neanderthals because they are our closest extinct relatives
and because indirect evidence from other aspects of their anatomy — from
tool use and from ancient DNA — is consistent with an adaptation to
complex vocal-auditory communication (see [a, e] in section 3).
Pre-existing arguments going back to work by Philip Lieberman suggested
that the articulatory apparatus for speech had not yet come under intense
positive selection pressure in Neanderthals. We provided new anatomical
reconstructions of Neanderthal vocal tract morphology, and simulated the
acoustic and articulatory properties of this reconstructed Neanderthal
vocal tract. Our main result was that the morphology of the Neanderthal
skull gives us no reason to believe that they lacked a human-like
`descended larynx' and that the main contrast between the two species was
the greater facial flattening found in modern humans. Our published
results included supplementary files of simulated human and Neanderthal
vowel articulations for the vowels [a], [i] and [u];
see references [b, d] in section 3.
The work was conducted by a team in the UK, with the anatomical
reconstruction done in the Institute of Archaeology, UCL by Dr Sandra
Martelli (post-doctoral researcher) and Dr James Steele (PI), and the
software articulatory modelling done at the Institute of Sound and
Vibration Research, University of Southampton by Dr Antoine Serrurier
(post-doctoral researcher) and Dr Anna Barney (PI).
References to the research
The names of UCL researchers are underlined.
[a] Steele, J., Uomini, N. (2009). Can the archaeology of manual
specialization tell us anything about language evolution? A survey of the
state of play. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 19, 97-110. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0959774309000067.
[b] Martelli, S., Serrurier, A., Barney, A. and Steele, J.
(2010). 3-D morphometric and acoustic analysis of chimpanzee and human
vocal tracts, and their use in the reconstruction of Neanderthal vocal
tracts and their acoustic potential. In Smith, A. D. M., Schouwstra, M.,
de Boer, B. and Smith, K. (eds.) Proceedings of the 8th International
Conference on the Evolution of Language. London, GB, World
Scientific, pp. 449-450. Available on request.
[c] Steele, J., Ferrari, P. & Fogassi, L. (eds.) (2012) From
action to language: comparative perspectives on primate tool use, gesture,
and the evolution of human language. Special Issue of Phil. Trans .
Roy. Soc. Series B 367: 4-160. Submitted to REF2.
[d] Barney, A., Martelli, S., Serrurier, A. & Steele, J.
(2012) Articulatory capacity of Neanderthals, a very recent and human-like
fossil hominin. Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. Series B 367: 88-102.
Submitted to REF2.
Key peer reviewed funding:
€1,127,745 from the European Commission (under the FP6 NEST Pathfinder
scheme `What it means to be human'). Project title: HANDTOMOUTH.
Duration: 2006-2010. PI: James Steele. The project examined common
elements in human cognitive systems for language and for tool-use, and the
timeline for their evolution using fossil and archaeological data. The EC
assessing officer who reviewed the project's final report classified
HANDTOMOUTH as an 'excellent project regarding the achievement of their
Details of the impact
The Voicebox: an educational resource for secondary school science
teaching. There is a need in the UK to engage school pupils with
science at an age where they are still forming their subject preferences.
The phenomena of speech and the voice are familiar to pupils and have
intrinsic interest because they convey so much social and individuating
information. It was therefore expected that an extension activity that
uses speech as a vehicle to introduce some key concepts in physics and
biology might engage pupils, including those who otherwise show little
interest in science subjects.
As an additional outcome of our research, therefore, we decided to
produce materials to enable school science teachers to introduce the
evolution of speech and language in the classroom. School science teaching
has its own priorities and constraints, which require specialist
expertise. We therefore formed a separate team specifically for this
purpose, involving academics in UCL Archaeology (Sandra Martelli, James
Steele) and in UCL Speech, Hearing & Phonetic Sciences (Mark
Huckvale), along with curriculum developers at the Institute of Physics
(Charles Tracy, Education Manager) and the Nuffield Foundation Curriculum
Programme (Peter Campbell, co-Director, Nuffield Twenty-First Century
The result of this collaboration was Voicebox: The Physics and
Evolution of Speech, a school science teaching resource for pre-GCSE
teaching, which included a 52-page booklet, DVD with additional learning
resources, and an innovative physical apparatus . It was published in
2010 as part of the Science Enhancement Programme (SEP; http://www.nationalstemcentre.org.uk/sep)
run by the Gatsby Foundation.
The Voicebox booklet contains an illustrated overview of the
topic with suggestions for teachers on how to introduce the ideas in the
classroom, plus student activity sheets and notes for teachers and
technicians. The electronic files (now downloadable from the National STEM
Centre website ) include the activity sheets in PDF and editable Word
formats; PowerPoint presentations containing a complete set of the images
used in the booklet and activity sheets; and further resources including
video clips and drag-and-drop interactives that accompany the student
activities. The further resources also include software packages written
by UCL's Mark Huckvale to illustrate graphically the different properties
of sound (amplitude, pitch and timbre) as pupils speak into a microphone
in real time (`Faroson'), and to simulate the sound emitted by vocal
tracts of different sizes and articulated into different shapes
(`VTDemo'), as well as a video of the larynx showing footage from a camera
introduced into the oropharynx to show one of the team's (Steele) vocal
folds in motion [1, see online resources]. In addition to this, a physical
apparatus (the vowel resonator kit) was specially designed to enable the
sound properties of the human vocal tract to be reproduced for three
different basic vowels ([a], [i] and [u]), using
inexpensive everyday materials that the pupils can assemble .
The Voicebox resource was favourably reviewed in the trade press.
A reviewer for School Science Review commented that "many of
the SEP resources give me a new insight into teaching traditional
topics, and this publication is no different. A useful resource that
contextualises some of the science behind evolution and sound" ,
while a reviewer of the vowel resonator kit for Physics Education
gave it four stars out of a possible five, commenting that "The
apparatus is easy to use and with younger students would make an ideal
practical investigation into the human voice. [...] the apparatus is
simple but excellent and can, with a little ingenuity, be extended into
a more diverse investigation into the structure of the sounds produced.
[...] an interesting extension to the usual sound experiments" .
The whole resource currently (October 2013) has a five star user rating
out of five on the National STEM Centre website .
When the booklet (with DVD) was published in 2010, it was sent free of
charge to the c. 4,000 SEP Associates (school science teachers) who
requested a copy. It was also sent by SEP to another c.150 targeted
individuals (e.g. Science Learning Centres, Association for Science
Education regional officers, and so on). The Institute of Physics
meanwhile distributed the booklet to all 1700 of its affiliated schools
and has since distributed copies to teachers at events and/or on request
(another 847 copies) . The e-resources were hosted on the SEP website
from its publication in Summer 2010 until the website closed at the end of
2011, at which time they were transferred to the National STEM Centre.
Statistics for individual resources on the SEP website are not available,
but there have been 763 downloads from the National STEM Centre website
since 2012 (all figures for period to September 2013) .
To reinforce and evaluate the Voicebox resource, we offered
one-hour workshops to up to 10 London secondary schools during Third Term
of 2013 (May-June), taught jointly by Steele from UCL and by an
experienced teacher from the Institute of Physics curriculum development
network, with the science teachers of the host schools. The offer was
oversubscribed and nine were delivered, with one postponed to a later
date. A freelance educational consultant formerly employed by the SEP
programme undertook the evaluation. The workshops were assessed by
feedback questionnaires completed anonymously by the pupils, and by
follow-up telephone interviews with the teachers at the host schools, and
a report was written synthesising these results . The report summary
"It was found that the workshops were rated highly by the teachers, and a
very large majority of the students were interested in the workshop
activities and in doing further similar activities. The workshop appealed
to a wide range of students, including those who were in general less
interested in science. The teachers reported that they would value taking
part in further workshops, and they found ideas in the sessions that they
would like to incorporate into their curriculum teaching."
This is based on a sample of 157 pupil feedback questionnaires, and six
telephone interviews with teachers (all those teachers who were
contactable in the follow-up period at or shortly after the end of term).
Particularly noteworthy, in relation to our aim of engaging a wide range
of pupils with science subjects, is the fact that, of the pupils who said
they were only `fairly interested' or `not very interested' in science
generally, 70-80% were either `interested' or `very interested' in the
workshop activities and in doing more activities on this topic. The report
also states that:
"The teachers were asked whether they thought that students who were not
especially interested in science might become more engaged through these
kinds of activities on the human voice. All of the teachers were very
positive on this point. Although the students attending the after-school
workshops tended to be those already interested in science, the teachers
felt that the materials would work well with less interested students.
They commented on the value of the approaches that were relevant to
students and which appealed to their broader interests. In fact, one
teacher had already tried some of the resources on the CD-ROM with less
motivated lower ability girls and found this to be successful."
In conclusion, a multidisciplinary research project on the evolution of
speech led to the formation of a specialist team to develop a resource on
this and related topics for enhancing secondary school (pre-GCSE) science
teaching, which was then widely distributed within the UK science teaching
network. A follow-up evaluation confirmed that the resource successfully
uses the voice and speech, and its relationship to human and hominid
anatomy, as a vehicle to introduce some key concepts in physics and
biology, engaging even pupils who otherwise show little interest in
science subjects. The Voicebox is currently part of the Institute
of Physics' offer for teacher training workshops on the broader topic of
sound, and support for further London schools workshops will be offered by
Steele from UCL. It is intended that future initiatives led by UCL
Archaeology will follow, taking the Voicebox as a model.
Expanding reach and engaging new audiences with research. While Voicebox
facilitated an in-depth engagement with our research for a specific and
defined group, wider media engagements allowed us to broaden the reach of
this engagement. Our work reconstructing Neanderthal vocal tracts and
speech potential was featured in the media, most notably in a contribution
on the vocal tract by Barney and Martelli to the first episode of BBC 2's
`Prehistoric Autopsy' series (aired 22 October 2012; 1.6 million viewers),
in which Neanderthals were studied and their bodies and appearance
reconstructed . Barney also described our work as part of a podcast on
Neanderthals, which is available online on the (London) Natural History
Museum's website, where it enhances the presentation of the Gibraltar
skull, the first adult Neanderthal skull ever discovered (one of 22
`Treasures' of the Museum, all of which have been on permanent display in
a new gallery space since November 2012) .
Sources to corroborate the impact
 Availability of Voicebox resource and associated materials: Campbell,
P., Huckvale, M., Martelli, S., Steele, J. & Tracy, C. (2010) Voicebox:
The Physics and Evolution of Speech [SEP128] London: The Gatsby
Science Enhancement Programme/ Midddlesex University. Available from:
(includes 5* review). Online resources and DVD mirror at UCL:
Apparatus order page: http://bit.ly/1jb3dDz
 Description of vowel resonator kit: http://bit.ly/1dBTcOz.
 Natalie Timoney (2011) `Voicebox: The Physics and Evolution of Speech
[review].' School Science Review December 2011, 93(343), p. 134.
Available on request.
 John Kinchin (2011) `Voicebox kit discovers the physics and evolution
of speech [Review].' Physics Education November 2011, p. 721. http://bit.ly/1bBI6tx.
 Institute of Physics: `Distribution of the Voicebox Publication and
Resources'. Document and accompanying email, received 17/09/2013,
available on request.
 Richard Boohan (freelance educational consultant), `Voicebox
Workshop: Evaluation Report. A report commissioned by the Institute of
Physics and University College London to evaluate the series of Voicebox
workshops held in London secondary schools in the Summer Term 2013.' 18
pp. Document available on request, received August 2013.
 Media coverage: BB2 Prehistoric Autopsy, Ep. 1:
http://bbc.in/179AvRk. First aired 22/10/2012. Viewer numbers reported in
the Guardian, 23/10/2013 http://bit.ly/1gT4W3P.
 Podcast from the Natural History Museum at: http://bit.ly/1bMKY51.